Will Obama be remembered as the Snooper President?

The President is caught riding rough-shod over privacy for the second time in a month.

This is a bad one. At 7:05PM last night, the Guardian published this story, that the National Security Administration had, using a top secret court order, been collecting all of the phone data from Verizon, one of America's biggest phone networks. Not just some of the data; not just of certain individuals under specific investigation: all of it. Every single customer.

It seems Obama will be remembered as the Snooper President. This story comes at the worst possible time for him, struggling as he already is to drag his second term free of the scandals in which it has been mired. Not only that, this is the second government department in less than a month shown to have been wildly overzealous in taking phone records: the Justice Department was caught subpoenaing the same data from Associated Press journalists just a few weeks ago.

The leaked document obtained by the Guardian's Glenn Greenwald, which is marked Top Secret, instructs the phone company to produce “all call detail records or 'telephony metadata'” for all communications operated by Verizon within the US, and from the US to other countries, and then continue to produce it, ongoing, for the three month duration of the order.

What is being collected isn't call content – this isn't a wire-tapping operation – but metadata; when a call is made, and to whom, and for how long. James Ball at the Guardian gives a good run-down of what this means here.

In essence what this scandal means is that the Obama-era NSA has simply continued Bush-era tactics. In an eerily similar scandal in 2005, a whistleblower revealed that the NSA had been intercepting telephone records wholesale from AT&T, another telecommunications giant, with the same sort of injunction; which implies that Verizon probably isn't the only network whose records are being obtained by the government – though it is the only network implicated in this particular leak.

Of course, the President usually doesn't personally sign off on these things. But that there have been so many violations on his watch hints troublingly of a White House culture that sets a low premium on privacy.

There is a defence to all this, of course. You and I do not work in the Oval Office. We do not know the dangers the US may face, and we do not know how many lives have been saved in exchange for this privacy. It is the NSA's job to keep people safe, and if it feels it can track terrorists by correlating certain patterns of phone behaviour, then perhaps there is an argument that they are right to do so. Perhaps it is worth it.

But citizens were not given any choice in the matter. This – like the AP subpoena – happened in secret, “Top Secret” in this case. Maybe privacy had to be overridden, and maybe it had to be in secret, for the greater good. But this presidency – this President – wasn't supposed to operate like this.

(It is not just the administration at fault here, it has to be said. MSNBC's Adam Serwer astutely pointed out that Congress has twice had the opportunity to vote on amendments that would at least partially to lift the lid on NSA secret surveillance, and twice voted against it.)

Further worrying questions are raised by this issue too, perhaps most haunting of which is: could the secret court order as used by the NSA to requisition data from Verizon – and simultaneously gag them – be used for, say, Facebook data? Or Google data? The NSA is an incredibly secretive organisation; the truth is, we don't know what they are able to do until, like yesterday, it leaks out.

I'll end with a quote from a crucial campaign speech Obama made in August 2007, entitled “The War We Need To Win.” In this speech, the ambitious upstart Senator set out his policy stall for the Democratic nomination for the presidency. With a directness that his oratory has lacked of late, Obama eviscerated the Bush administration's policies for riding roughshod over privacy protections in the name of national security.

This Administration also puts forward a false choice between the liberties we cherish and the security we demand. I will provide our intelligence and law enforcement agencies with the tools they need to track and take out the terrorists without undermining our Constitution and our freedom. No more national security letters to spy on citizens who are not suspected of a crime. No more tracking citizens who do nothing more than protest a misguided war. No more ignoring the law when it is inconvenient. That is not who we are. And it is not what is necessary to defeat the terrorists. The FISA court works. The separation of powers works. Our Constitution works. We will again set an example for the world that the law is not subject to the whims of stubborn rulers, and that justice is not arbitrary.

Obama, back in 2007, talking about Bush, concluded: “This Administration acts like violating civil liberties is the way to enhance our security. It is not.”

In the six years since that speech was given, nothing seems to have changed.

The NSA headquarters at Fort Meade. Photograph: Getty Images

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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Two referendums have revived the Tories and undone Labour

The Scottish vote enabled the Conservatives' rebirth as the party of the Union; the Brexit vote has gifted Theresa May a project to reunite a fragmented right.

In the final week of the Scottish independence referendum campaign, as the Union appeared in peril, David Cameron pleaded with voters to punish his party rather than Scotland. “If you are fed up with the effing Tories, give them a kick,” he said. Cameron’s language reflected a settled view: the Conservatives were irredeemably loathed by Scots. For nearly two decades, the party had no more than one MP north of the border. Changing the party’s name for devolved contests was discussed.

Since becoming Conservative leader, Theresa May has pursued a hard – she prefers “clean” – Brexit strategy that Scots voted against and the Conservatives have achieved a UK-wide poll lead of 20 points.

Yet rather than regressing, the Scottish Conservatives have resurged. On 22 April, a Panelbase poll put them on 33 per cent in Scotland (a rise of 18 points since 2015). A favoured Labour barb used to be that there were more pandas (two) in Scotland than Tory MPs (one). The poll would leave the Tories with 12 seats and Corbyn’s party with none. Tory aides confess that they were surprised by the figures but declare there are “no limits to our ambitions” in Scotland.

The roots of this recovery lie in the 2014 independence referendum. The vote, and the SNP’s subsequent landslide victory in the 2015 general election, realigned Scottish politics along unionist and nationalist lines. Led by Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Conservatives have ably exploited the opportunity. “We said No. We meant it,” the party’s official slogan declares of Nicola Sturgeon’s demand for a second referendum. Under Ruth Davidson, the Tories have already become the official opposition at Holyrood.

Labour is torn between retaining unionists and winning back nationalists. It has been punished for its equivocation, as it is being punished over its confused response to Brexit. In April 2016, the Scottish Labour leader, Kezia Dugdale, said that it was “not inconceivable” that she could back independence if the UK voted to leave the EU (and earlier suggested that MPs and MSPs could be given a free vote). Jeremy Corbyn recently stated that he was “absolutely fine” with a second referendum being held.

“For us it’s a badge of honour but there are some people in Scottish Labour who are quite queasy about that word [unionist] and I think Jeremy Corbyn would be very queasy about it,” Adam Tomkins, a Conservative MSP for Glasgow and public law professor, told me. “Don’t forget the Northern Ireland dimension; we’ve all seen the photos of him rubbing shoulders with leading republicans. The Scottish Union is very different to the Irish Union but the word migrates.”

The irony is that Corbyn allies believed his anti-austerity, anti-Trident platform would allow Labour to recover in Scotland. Yet the pre-eminence of the national question has left it in a political no-man’s land.

In contrast to the rest of the UK, Scots backed Remain by 62 per cent to 38 per cent. Far from protecting EU membership, as David Cameron had promised in the referendum campaign, the preservation of the Union now threatened it. Theresa May has since yielded no ground, denying Scotland both a second independence referendum on terms dictated by the SNP and single market membership. But polls show no rise in support for independence.

Conservative aides believe that Sturgeon miscalculated by immediately raising the prospect of a second referendum following the Leave vote last June. Families and communities were riven by the 2014 contest. Most had little desire to disrupt the uneasy peace that has prevailed since.

Nor are the politics of Brexit as uncomplicated as some assume. Thirty-six per cent of SNP supporters voted Leave and more than a third of this bloc have since turned against independence. As elsewhere, some Remainers have accepted the result and fear the instability that secession would cause. Scotland’s trade with the UK is worth four times as much as that with the EU. Davidson, who was one of the most forceful advocates for Remain, says that pursuing independence to counter the effects of Brexit would be “stubbing your toe to then amputate your foot”.

Theresa May, who spoke of the “precious” Union when she became Prime Minister, has devoted great attention to Scotland. Cabinet ministers are instructed to develop a “Scottish plan” when they formulate policy; buildings funded by the UK government now bear its insignia. Davidson’s influence was crucial to May’s decision to retain the 0.7 per cent foreign aid commitment – an emblem of compassionate conservatism.

After a decade of SNP rule, Tory aides believe that their rival’s poor domestic record, most notably on education, is “catching up with them”. More than a year has elapsed since the Scottish Parliament passed new legislation. “We’ve got a government that simply isn’t very interested in governing,” Tomkins said. “I thought that Nicola [Sturgeon] would change that. I was wrong.” What preoccupies the SNP is the constitutional question.

Shortly after the remarkable Scottish polls, a new survey showed the Tories on course to win the most seats in Wales for the first time since 1859. For some former Labour supporters, voting Ukip is proving a gateway drug to voting Conservative.

Two referendums have now realigned politics in the Tories’ favour. The Scottish vote enabled their rebirth as the party of the Union; the Brexit vote has gifted May a project to reunite a fragmented right.

Before the 2015 general election, Labour derided the Tories as a southern English force unworthy of their official name: the Conservative and Unionist Party. Partly through accident and partly through design, May and Davidson are now reclaiming it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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